- Literature and Adoption:Themes, Theses, Questions
Natty Bumppo, Topsy, Ishmael, Huck, Elena Olenska, Joe Christmas, Lolita, Beloved: American literature is famously full of orphans, foundlings, and changelings—many of whom find themselves adopted into new families. Social scientists have been studying adoptive families closely since at least the 1970s, when rates of formal adoption began to drop off precipitously in the US and the feminist revolution triggered key changes in family structure. Outstanding work by historians Barbara Melosh (Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption ), Timothy Hacsi (Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America ), Julie Miller (Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City [2008), and Laura Briggs (Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption ), for example, has revealed the mechanisms by which American norms about kinship were implemented and policed through adoption policy and orphan care; their work also documents the means by which new forms of familial and national affiliation developed. In the last decade, literary critics have begun join this important conversation.
Many social-scientific accounts stress the limitations of adoption, especially transracial adoptions occurring in the context of Indian removal, eugenicist theories about criminality, the demoniza- tion of African-American maternity, neoliberal economic policy, and anti-immigrant initiatives. Literary historical projects, however, tend to start from a somewhat more sanguine position. To varying degrees, all of the humanist work on adoption considered in this essay begins with the antifoundationalist view that adoptive families are important to study because they unsettle presuppositions that kinship is inherently and must always be biological. These scholars praise adoption stories for creating subjects who have [End Page 385] “the opportunity to realize unlimited potential free of genealogical constraints” (Singley 5). Tracing the influence of biologically grounded kinship to influential norms governing a child’s legitimacy, inheritance, personal and racial identity, nationality, and citizenship, these studies locate moments in which the novels and memoirs that tell adoption stories develop other—ideally less restrictive—communities of care. Although Carol Singley, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Mark Jerng, and Cynthia Callahan all underscore the ambivalence that so strongly marks adoption narratives, they also share the premise that “adoption defies the rules of kinship by which most people understand themselves” (Callahan 166), and extract moments in which that defiance brings new possibilities for personal and collective identity into being.
While adoptees’ memoirs in particular readily demonstrate the emergence of new forms of personhood, the novelty that literary critics so often associate with adoption surely remains largely promissory at the level of national belonging. This elision of one sense of the domestic (as familial) with another (as national) is not unique to humanistic studies of adoption, but they do embrace it with particular enthusiasm. The four studies I am considering here all homologize family and nation, arguing that a less biological approach to forming families and creating affiliation triggers a more flexible vision of the nation. They all identify the adoptive family with quintessentially American (to use Melosh’s phrase) ideals such as an emphasis on fresh starts or a Calvinist emphasis on personal salvation, and they stress the ways that literary adoption “addresses a collective need for improvement, assuages social guilt over inequality, and shows that disparate elements of society can be assimilated without altering the fundamental composition of society itself” (Singley 8). Adoption narratives, in short, are read as prompting the national community to redefine itself as a flexible, open-ended, and absorptive entity. Mark Jerng takes this logic one step farther, asserting that adoptees’ “disidentification with ‘birth’ and inclusion of multiple histories that fracture the singularity of personhood” offers tools for rethinking accounts of national belonging that rely on unity and historical continuity (146). Literary critical readings of adoption stories sometimes identify moments when fiction also reinforces biological...